Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes
Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan
Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight
Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – dismal and cold. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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In search of starlings at Glastonbury and Aberystwyth

Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset
Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset

Last weekend Jane and I headed off to Glastonbury for a few days. It’s an unreal place. If ever you needed to visit a personal transformation coach, an angelic reiki practitioner or a shamanic hairdresser, make for Glastonbury. It would be easy to sneer at the apparent pretentiousness of it all, but that would be unfair. While there may be some charlatans involved, I’m sure many of these people are quite genuine in their thinking; and I sometimes think how comfortable it must be to live according to a ready-made belief system. It was curious to note the vigorous campaign for the retention of the last remaining bank (Barclays, if I remember correctly….) in the town, though.

An extensive area of former peat workings near Glastonbury has been reclaimed to create a cluster of wetlands and reedbeds, now known as the Avalon Marshes. These are home to several rare bird species, notably bittern and great white egret. The latter was fairly prominent at the Ham Wall RSPB reserve, and I photographed one on a beautiful, still, winter’s morning with warm light and a hint of frost on the ground. The former lived up to its reputation for skulking. But arguably the biggest  draw on the Avalon Marshes in winter is its huge starling roost, which I spent three evenings trying to capture. For roosting, the birds have a very large area to choose from, and they can move from one site to another on a daily basis. Even the local birders and photographers admit to being unable to predict what they are likely to do next. On my first visit I found a likely looking foreground at sunset and hoped a flock would fill the sky with interesting shapes. Needless to say it didn’t work out how I had hoped, but there was the above; I’m not sure yet if the image works or not.

On the second night, from a different location,  I watched as huge flocks gathered over farmland and in trees to the east against a dull background; and later, with mounting disbelief, as a continuous stream of starlings moved from one section of reedbed to another. The process lasted some 15 – 20 minutes; there must have been millions of birds altogether. But it was a frustrating encounter;  they flew too low over the ground to photograph successfully. On the third night I sought out the trees where they had gathered the previous evening but again the results were disappointing.

Starlings at Aberystwyth
Starlings at Aberystwyth

Back in Aberystwyth,  decent sunsets have encouraged me to visit the starling roost three times this week. Tuesday was just the most gorgeous winter evening; cloud had largely cleared during the afternoon and there was no wind. The starlings must have felt it too. For a few brief moments a flock briefly indulged in one of their spectacular ribbon/bracelet formations before dropping in under the pier. At last! Something to write home about……

For the last couple of months my camera bag might have been a door stop for all the use it has had, so it was good to pick up the camera again….. even if I could barely remember what some of its buttons were for! But the experience did remind me how important it is to be familiar with the controls of your equipment. A few seconds delay and confusion can mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it. And which shutter speed would blur the movement of birds in flight most successfully? I just couldn’t remember. But there is one thing about trying to photograph wildlife – it teaches you patience.

 

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The patient birdwatcher.

Bittern, Teifi Marshes
Bittern, Teifi Marshes

 

Last Thursday saw me heading south to the Teifi Marshes, a Wildlife Trust reserve near Cardigan. After days on end cooped up in my  home-office cum prison cell thanks to rain and/or wind and/or cloud, the forecast for Thursday was promising. I decided to make an early start. So on a lovely morning I arrived on the banks of the Teifi just a few minutes after sunrise. The tide was high and it was flat calm. What a picture!

I spent a minute or two in each of the hides as I walked down the old railway track into the reserve. At the top of my day’s wish-list, I told another photographer, was a bittern. It may not have been very realistic objective but what the hell………aim high! I quickly moved on until I reached the Kingfisher hide, because a bittern is occasionally seen from there in winter. I’ve always liked this hide because it overlooks a small pool, more or less surrounded by reeds;  it is quite an intimate space. I opened a wooden flap and looked out.

At first I didn’t believe it was even actually a bird. It was too still – a fence-post perhaps? Too tall, too thin and too dark to be a bittern, anyway. I dropped my camera bag on to the wooden floor, the sound – I’m sure – carrying far on such a still morning. Trying to keep calm, I retrieved my Canon 5d3 / Tamron 150-600 zoom combo and took another look. It was a bittern, sunning itself! The sound of the shutter would travel equally clearly in these conditions; by the time I had taken the first few shots, there was no doubt that it was aware of my presence. It turned around, then began to walk along the edge of the reeds. Within three minutes of my arrival it had disappeared. I silently cursed my clumsiness.

The other photographer arrived. We waited another ten minutes or so. Then there was movement in the reeds and I located the bird half way up some reed stems. From this launch pad it flew across the pool and disappeared. Would it ever be seen again? In fact, it flew again quite soon and landed opposite the hide. This small reed-bed is somewhat degraded at the moment, the result, apparently, of being used as a starling roost.  Over most of the area the reeds are bent over (or broken) to barely half their normal height. (I believe the technical term is “trashed”…..) A crouching bittern was still completely hidden but at full height it was easily visible. Over the course of the day the bittern could be seen with varying degrees of success as it visited various parts of the reedbed. Having said that, though, its position was most often given away by the black cap to its head. It is a wonderfully camouflaged creature. The starling hypothesis gained credence after a couple of crows brought a small dark bird corpse out of the reeds and ate it. There would be plenty of food there for a bittern, too, as they are not that choosy about their diet.

Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling......
Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling……

I was still hoping for the ultimate bittern picture so I stayed put, despite the temperature, which must have been pretty close to freezing in the shade. The six layers of clothing I had donned early that morning weren’t really enough.  A succession of other visitors joined me in the hide, and I helped them locate the bird. They donated sandwiches, biscuits and chocolate in return. I hadn’t expected to be there so long! One christened me “the patient birdwatcher”. Towards mid-afternoon the bittern moved quite close to the railway track and I was able to photograph it reasonably successfully through the overgrown hedge (see above). Eventually a combination of thorough cold and fatigue meant it was time to call it a day. But what a day!

I’m still not sure I have the perfect bittern picture. In one otherwise excellent series of images, the bird’s surroundings are untidy. In the picture above the inverted v-shape, out-of-focus reed stem is irritating. I wonder if the content-aware cloning abilities of Photoshop would remove it successfully. Does anyone know?

 

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